Rural and Remote Communities Face Unique Challenges when it comes to Wildfire Risks
Fire kills just as swiftly in the country as in the city. However, firefighting in rural and remote areas is much different than in urban or suburban areas. According to Kelly O’Brien, Fire Chief of Chelan County Fire District #3, rural community firefighting challenges can include a variety of issues including access to remote locations with longer distances resulting in increased response times that result in longer burn times. Driveway access can also play a part in making it more difficult to manage access due to steepness, as well as narrow roadways or unplowed snow in the winter. The need to hand pull a fire hose to a structure on fire in a remote area as well as lack of water access are additional challenges. Fire districts may need to respond with water tenders in rural or remote circumstances and when fire hydrants are not available, the amount of water they can deliver is limited and Incident Commanders must make allowances for tenders to refill at hydrants sometimes miles away. In the summer months, keeping fires small is critical to keep the footprint of the fire near to where it started. Additionally, when communities are sparsely populated, rural fire departments may struggle to staff rural fires. Finding and retaining qualified volunteers is also a challenge in rural fire districts. These and other issues in rural areas can cause unique firefighting problems.
Dave Nalle, Deputy Chief of Chelan County Fire District #3, had the following to say about rural fires and their threat to our local communities. “The populations east of the Cascade crest are often visited by wildfires. Annually in Chelan County we have wildfires big and small that threaten our homes. Our Leavenworth City leaders recognize we live in a fire prone area and they have the best interest of safeguarding life and property of residents and visitors to Leavenworth. Tuesday evening Leavenworth City Council passed a Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) Code. The intent of the WUI Code is for new construction to withstand the intrusion of wildfire exposure even in the absence of fire department intervention. The WUI Code, defensible space, adequate water supplies and good planning are all part of a system for guarding our homes from Wildfire.”
When firefighters have longer response and travel times in rural areas, with a need to establish a positive water supply, it can result in fast-spreading fires involving relatively large buildings such as ranches, farms and farmhouses or barns.
For rural residents, heaters, including wood stoves, or damaged electrical equipment in barns or other structures or lack of working smoke alarms can increase the risk of catastrophic loss or death in a fire.
Additionally, in rural areas, homes or structures can be heated by propane with propane storage tanks that can create hazardous leaking conditions during a fire.
Other rural or remote issues such as drug lab operations are now much more a problem in rural areas causing unique firefighting complications such as ammonia transport tanks that can catch on fire and additional coordination with law enforcement.
Fire death rates in rural communities are high, why? In 2019, the smallest communities (populations less than 2,500) had the highest fire incident rates with 10.2 fires per thousand residents in the US. On the other hand, populations with over 250,000 people had the lowest rate with 2.6 fires per thousand residents (https://www.statista.com).
Loss of property or livestock on ranches and farms can have an extreme impact on residents in rural areas because a wildfire can significantly disrupt a family farming operation, both during and after a fire event.
Being prepared for wildfire on your rural property or farm can limit the disruption to your family and prevent death to farm animals.
Clearing brush or debris from your ranch, farm or landscape on an annual basis, storing equipment in safe locations, storing or isolating highly flammable and combustible materials, keeping up-to-date records, installing smoke alarms and fire extinguishers, protecting hay or forage supplies, and avoiding burning on days with higher fire danger are just some of the ways to protect your land, buildings or farm from wildfire.
If a fire does occur, move equipment, assist with water access for firefighting crews, build fire breaks and move livestock. Identify a safe, secure refuge area in the event you need to move your livestock quickly with clear routes to the refuge area with gates open and in the direction that they need to travel.
Livestock refuge areas should be maintained upwind to minimize the effects of smoke. Additionally, compile a list of phone numbers of contacts who have experience with livestock handling experience that can help in an emergency and call for help.
After a wildfire, contact your insurance agent for land or farm related losses, take pictures and document damage to structures, equipment, and crops, and be careful when moving damaged structures or burned hay as they could smolder for days or weeks. Additionally, you can determine eligibility for federal assistance due to fire on your rural property at www.fsa.usda.gov.
You can also get a free Wildfire Ready Plan and schedule a consultation from a local wildfire expert at widlfireready.com or call 1-877-WA-READY.
Article by Barbara Carrillo, Communications Consultant, Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition
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